From Naval officer to Benedictine nun

Meet the Abbey of St. Walburga’s newest solemnly professed sister

Aaron Lambert

The paths God leads his people on often take unexpected turns; for Sister Elizabeth Baumgartner, however, she never could have imagined going from active duty to a life of prayer.

Sister Elizabeth made her solemn vows and consecrated her life to God as the newest solemnly professed Benedictine nun at the Abbey of St. Walburga Nov. 6. Before entering the monastery in August 2008, she spent 15 years on active military duty as a Naval officer – seven years as a communications officer and eight years as a Cryptologic officer. She served both on shore and on ships, and was stationed all around the world throughout her career.

Now, she will spend the remainder of her days on earth serving the Lord, the Church and the community.

“I pray that I … [bring] Christ to those around me,” she said. “To be a faithful Benedictine nun, preserving the ‘school of the Lord’s service’ all the days of my life.”

Baptized as Judith, Sister Elizabeth was born and raised in Denver and is the eldest of seven children. She attended public school from kindergarten to 5th grade, and attended the recently closed St. Louis in Englewood for her middle school years. She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Englewood in 1988, and went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. She was commissioned as an ensign upon her graduation in 1992.

While at the Naval Academy, Sister Elizabeth attended daily Mass as her schedule permitted. She was active in the Catholic community at each base she was assigned to while on active duty, and continued to attend Mass regularly. One day, while praying in the Catholic chapel at her first duty station in Naples, Italy, the thought of becoming a nun creeped into her mind.

“I was a bit surprised because I had never before thought of a vocation to religious life and besides, I had just begun my naval career and was really enjoying it,” she said. “I didn’t pay much attention to the thought and continued on with my life. Over the next ten years, the thought about religious life would pop up numerous times.”

After spending nine years overseas, Sister Elizabeth was stationed in Maryland in 2001. During this time, the desire for a vocation to religious life became very strong, she said, and she decided she needed to do something about it. She contacted a priest in the area she knew, and he put her in contact with a spiritual director and some sisters in the area.

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Judith Baumgarnter poses on a ship as a lieutentant in the United States Navy. Judith recently took a new name, Sister Elizabeth, when she made her solemn professions as the newest Benedictine nun at the Abbey of St. Walburga. (Photo provided)

She was transferred back to Naples in 2004 – her first assignment, and her last – and stopped actively looking into religious life due to being overseas again. Then one day after daily Mass, something unexpected happened.

“The priest asked me rather casually if I had ever thought about religious life, which surprised me since I had not mentioned anything to anyone,” Sister Elizabeth explained. “When I told him I had been thinking about religious life, but was unsure as to where I felt I was being led exactly, he offered assistance in finding a spiritual director in the area, as well as suggesting that I contact the abbess of a Benedictine abbey between Naples and Rome. He thought the Benedictines would be a good fit because I was older.”

She began spending time with the Benedictine nuns, and found herself being drawn more and more to the Benedictine life.

“After much prayer and consultation with my spiritual director, I decided to submit my request to resign my active duty commission in the U.S. Navy to actively pursue a vocation to religious life,” she said.

She settled on entering the Abbey of St. Walburga in her home state of Colorado, and after resigning from the Navy in September 2007, entered the monastery in August 2008. She made her first profession of monastic vows June 24, 2011, and made her solemn vows Nov. 6.

She received her religious name, Elizabeth, when she made her first vows, and it was only fitting that it fell on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

“My patroness is St. Elizabeth, mother of St. John the Baptist, so it was very beautiful that the Abbess chose the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist as the date of my first profession of monastic vows,” she said.

COMING UP: Religious Sisters of Mercy to leave seminary, but not archdiocese

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Religious Sisters of Mercy to leave seminary, but not archdiocese

Professor-nuns helped establish St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Roxanne King

In 1998, four Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., arrived to Denver to help open and establish St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Over the years the order’s presence in the archdiocese grew to seven and spread to the Western Slope.

This month, with their original mission completed, three sisters are leaving the seminary convent, but four sisters will remain at St. Clare of Assisi School in Edwards, Colo., to continue teaching there.

“It’s been a great joy for each one of the sisters assigned here to work in the seminary, to collaborate and to bring it together,” said Sister Esther Mary Nickel, superior of the Denver convent the last dozen years. Explaining their move, she added, “Our hope was that as new priests were formed [at the seminary], they would eventually take over our jobs and that is happening.”When the seminary was being launched, Archbishop Charles Chaput invited the sisters to help staff it, and to maintain the seminary chapel and sacristy, work with first-year seminarians and care for the archbishop’s residence. Archbishop Samuel Aquila, then-Father Aquila, served as seminary rector.

Today the seminary is thriving and the archbishop’s residence, which sits across from the seminary, was recently expanded for communal living and combined with the new multi-use facility called the Holy Trinity Center.

The Holy Trinity Center, which was paid for through private donors and completed last year, solves space woes the archdiocese was experiencing at the John Paul II Center campus, which houses two seminaries—St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary—the convent, a Spirituality Year House for first-year seminarians, and the pastoral center offices.

“The Holy Trinity Center is fulfilling its purpose as a place for meetings, dinners and a place of hospitality. It’s been wonderful seeing how it’s developed,” said Sister Nickel, who has coordinated its activities since it opened.

Sister Nickel, who holds doctoral degrees in theology, liturgy and agronomy, also taught at St. John Vianney, assisted the Catholic Medical Association Denver Guild, the nonprofit Divine Mercy Supportive Care, Endow women’s studies, served as archdiocesan liaison to the Discalced Carmelites, and was a consultant to the Office of Liturgy.

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Sister Esther Mary Nickel has been serving at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary since 1998. While she and several other Religious Sisters of Mercy are leaving the archdiocese, a few will remain in Colorado to serve at St. Clare of Assisi school in Edwards. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“It’s been a great privilege and a joy to work with these men who go out and serve the people of God in the parishes. For me teaching has been a tremendous gift,” she said, adding that she also enjoyed her work with the Catholic groups, chancery offices and religious communities.

“There are such good people who have been working in the Archdiocese of Denver,” she said.

Sister Nickel is going to Jackson, Minn., to write a couple of books and several articles. She’ll also be helping former Denver priest, now Sioux City, Iowa, Bishop R. Walker Nickless, with liturgical formation.

Also leaving are Sister Mary Elisha Glady, who is going to the Diocese of Lake Charles, La., to serve as director of formation, and Sister Mary Katerina Masek, who is going to the Diocese of Phoenix to teach philosophy and music.

Staying in the mountains to serve St. Clare of Assisi School are the principal Sister Marirose Rudek; community superior Sister Mary Andrea Lesko, and teachers Sister Mary Rosanna Leinberger and Sister Mary Hanah Doak.

Sister Rudek is the sole remaining member of the first sisters who came to Denver to help open St. John Vianney. The others—Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, Sister Mary Prudence Allen, Sister Moira Debono and, the following year, Sister Mary Timothea Elliot, previously moved on to other assignments.

When a new order moves in to the Denver convent, their primary task will be to care for the archbishop’s residence and the Holy Trinity Center, Sister Nickel said.

“The convent was built in 1950 and had Precious Blood Sisters who did laundry and cooking for the seminary,” she said, referring to the old St. Thomas Seminary, predecessor to St. John Vianney. When St. Thomas closed, the Precious Blood Sisters left, she added.

“We feel grateful that we’re still part of the archdiocese,” said Sister Doak. “A lot of our vocations have come from the archdiocese—six or seven—including my own. The archdiocese is much beloved by our order and we’re grateful to be able to continue the tradition that was started in Denver and expanded to the Western Slope.

“There’s a sadness in closing the [Denver] convent,” she continued, “but also a peace that it’s the Lord’s will—and as part of the Lord’s will we are in this little mountain town [Edwards]. We love the school, St. Clare’s, and we’re really rooting for it and want to see it grow.”

For more information about the Religious Sister of Mercy, visit rsmofalma.org.